One of the most renowned collections of bronze sculptures in sub-Saharan Africa hails from Benin City. It gained global recognition around 1897 during the British expedition that transported thousands of bronze, wood, and ivory figures to England.
Benin art, commonly known as “court art,” held a monopoly over the artisans’ creations.
Objects of Art
The artistic repertoire of Benin includes court memorial plaques, altar cults (Ikengobo) symbolising achievements, ritualistic and animal figures, cast mask heads, warriors, and depictions of Oba in elaborate regalia. Woodcarvers crafted identical figures, restricted under the threat of death to the confines of the Oba’s palace.
According to Chief Jacob Eglarevba’s recorded oral traditions, the Benin people aren’t indigenous to their present location, having migrated from Egypt to Sudan and Ile-Ife before settling.
For centuries, Benin residents have crafted wood, ivory, and bronze art, providing valuable insights into their past. The bronzes from the 16th and 17th centuries adorned the Oba’s palace walls, offering pictorial records of social life, outlook, dress, worship, and more. These artworks also serve as an independent time scale, aligning with oral traditions and European visits between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Archaeology presents a promising avenue for fresh evidence. Early artefacts, such as polished stone axes, suggest the long existence of the forest belt people. Archaeological studies reveal Oba’s palaces were made of red mud, with decorated doors, window lintels, and unique structural features.
Comparison between Benin and Ife Art
- Benin heads are less realistic, while Ife heads are classical and naturalistic.
- Benin heads are products of imagination, while Ife heads are created with human portraits in mind.
- Benin works represent spirits impressively; Ife heads feature inlaid iron pupils, lacking in Benin art.
- Benin figures include plaques, groups, and precious stones; Ife has none but small holes, possibly for facial hair.
- Benin and Ife exhibit different casting processes and styles, with Benin having a conventional style and Ife’s being more realistic.
- Both art forms trace their origins to the old Benin confederacy of the present Nupe counting.
Anthropologists B. Struck (1923) and William Fagg attempted dating Benin art. Fagg’s recent and scientific classification comprises:
Early period (A.D. 1400) – characterised by thin, small heads.
Middle period (A.D. 1550) – marked by plaques and heavier bronzes.
Late phase (A.D. 1650) – featuring massive flamboyant heads in Benin.
Extract from late Chief Akpallah Okenyodo’s archives and historical research.